Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 15 October 2019

Egypt's Christians fearful of further attacks on Orthodox Christmas eve

Residents ask where were the police when the bombs were planted?

Egyptian security forces stand guard at the site where a police officer failed to defuse a bomb, near St Mary and Abu Sefein Coptic Orthodox Church in Cairo's district of Nasr City, Egypt, 06 January 2019. EPA
Egyptian security forces stand guard at the site where a police officer failed to defuse a bomb, near St Mary and Abu Sefein Coptic Orthodox Church in Cairo's district of Nasr City, Egypt, 06 January 2019. EPA

United States President Donald Trump congratulated the Egyptian president for his plan to inaugurate the largest cathedral in the Middle East on Sunday, a day after a policeman was killed trying to defuse a bomb planted near a Cairo church.

President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi was scheduled to open the Cathedral of the Nativity in the new administrative capital outside of Cairo on Sunday, which Egypt claims will be the largest in the Middle East.

"President El-Sisi is moving his country to a more inclusive future," Mr Trump wrote on Twitter.

But on the eve of Orthodox Christmas, Egypt’s Christians say they are more fearful than ever of further sectarian attacks.

The explosion on Saturday was the latest in a series of incidents targeting Egypt’s Coptic Christian population, occurring just a week after Mr El-Sisi ordered the formation of a new agency to combat sectarian incidents.

On Saturday, explosive devices were planted around the Church of the Virgin Mary and St Mercurius in the Ezbet Al Haggana district of Nasr City, a security source told The National.

Several were removed safely but the last, concealed in a bag, exploded when police bomb disposal technicians attempted to deactivate it. Police Major Mostafa Ebeid was killed in the blast, which wounded two other officers and a bystander.

On Sunday, the church doors remained decked in celebratory red and white cloth, but dozens of riot police blocked nearby roads.

Local Christians in the working class neighbourhood said they felt aggrieved by the belated increase in security. “Where was the protection?” asked Fady, a government employee who declined to give his last name. “Before the attack there were only three middle aged policemen who were drinking tea outside the door. Nothing else.”

Samuel, a local Christian tuk tuk driver, said his community felt increasingly targeted. “Every year, [the extremists] do this to us. Every year, they make us live in fear,” he said, asking that his surname be withheld. “At times I feel safer during Ramadan than at Christmas.”

Another resident, who gave her name as Um Nabil, said while she was grateful to security forces, more needed to be done to protect Egypt’s beleaguered religious minorities. “Thank God for the officer who dismantled the bombs, he is a hero,” said the 56-year-old dressmaker. “But the question remains where were the police when the bombs were planted?”

As she prepared food under the gaze of Jesus Christ and the late Coptic Pope Shenouda III posters in her home ahead of Monday’s Orthodox Christmas celebration, Um Nabil recalled a more peaceful past. “It was never like this when I was young. Muslims and Christians were one, and people used to congratulate each other [during holy days]. Now you can hear the sheikhs on the TV saying ‘whoever is not Muslim is an apostate’. And if you object, you are accused of stirring sectarianism.”

A security source, who spoke to The National on the condition of anonymity, said police were working to identify the perpetrators of Saturday’s bombing. “We are currently listening to testimonies of eyewitnesses and the imam of the mosque who said he saw the perpetrator planting the bombs.”

Earlier, police were notified after an imam at the neighbouring mosque warned church security about suspicious activity.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility but previous attacks have been carried out by extremist Islamic militants.

Copts make up about 10 per cent of Egypt's 97 million population but complain of discrimination. In the past two years, extremist attacks have killed over 100 Egyptian Christians.


Read more:

Egypt tightens security on Coptic Christmas eve after explosives expert killed at Cairo church

Egypt's El-Sisi to open new mega mosque and cathedral on Sunday

Egypt's Sisi announces new agency to stop 'sectarian incidents'


In November, an ambush on three buses carrying pilgrims from a remote desert monastery south of Cairo left seven people dead, including six from one family, and 19 wounded.

On Palm Sunday last year, attacks on churches in Alexandria and Tanta killed 47 and injured over 120.

Since the beginning of December, Egyptian security forces have stationed thousands of troops – including special forces – outside churches across the country.

At times, security forces have been accused of discriminating against Copts. In December, a policeman assigned to protect a church shot to death a Coptic man and his son after a verbal dispute in Minya, a governorate in Upper Egypt with a large Christian population.

A Christian masters student reached by telephone in Minya told The National his family was debating whether to attend midnight mass or not. “We keep thinking that if we don’t go, God will understand,” said Hamdy Abdel Messeh.

“Throughout the years, Copts have suffered and have been discriminated against but we have continued to live and survive,” Mr Abdel Messeh said.

But these days, he said, a quote by the Egyptian author Naguib Mahfouz kept coming to mind. “Fear doesn't prevent death. It prevents life.”

Updated: January 6, 2019 07:57 PM